White House asks industry to develop secure federal network

President Bush's special adviser on cybersecurity on Wednesday told hundreds of information technology specialists that he wants the private sector's recommendations on how to build a secure nationwide intranet for government agencies and their estimates on its cost.

Richard Clarke also said the private sector would build the intranet, to be called Govnet, and then lease it back to the government in exchange for a service fee.

"We want to build as secure an intranet as possible--one that taxpayers can rely on to be 100 percent safe ... a network that is separate from the routers connected to the Internet," Clarke told IT officials gathered at the Commerce Department.

He said there has been a 66 percent increase in virus attacks on computer networks in the past year. He added that computer viruses are becoming smarter and mutating, raising the possibility of a "devastating cyber attack" on government computer systems.

"Our enemies are smart, and they know how to use our technology against us," he said.

Two weeks ago, at the direction of Clarke, the General Services Administration posted a request for information seeking private-sector ideas on the possibility of building a special network for key government functions. Clarke said he had been working on the idea for about a year and first briefed Bush about a private government network in May. He said Bush expressed interest but wanted to know the cost.

"We have had a variety of tech people ask us, 'What can we do to help?'" he said. "It is in that spirit that we ask you to build an intranet ... and to tell us how much it will cost."

Clarke underscored that Govnet would not replace government agencies' use of the Internet to provide public information but rather would be used for critical agency information only. Each agency would pay a service fee to connect to Govnet, and each agency would decide what it considers critical and top-secret information.

No agency could connect to the Govnet unless it had demonstrated a level of computer security to ensure that no intruders could access Govnet. Clarke noted that no government agency has that level of computer security now.

Private-sector recommendations on Govnet are due Nov. 21, and GSA expects to post an analysis of the recommendations and an idea for moving forward by the end of January. If the administration agrees to ask high-tech companies to build Govnet, officials estimate that it would take about a year-and-a-half to launch the network.

Several news reports over the past week have quoted security experts as criticizing the Govnet idea, charging that no computer network can be completely insulated from attack.

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